Academic journal article Philosophy Today


Academic journal article Philosophy Today


Article excerpt

The black orb has me in its sight.1 At the turn of almost every page a solid black point aims at me straight in the eye.The punctum, the absolute singularity of the other, points at me. Perforating the page, each punctum also links together the passages that it separates. Pierced and punctured by its gaze, like the stare of Cyclops's eye, I am its only concern, for it addresses solely me.

Composed of a series of fragmentary paragraphs or sections, each separated from the other-punctuated, Derrida would say-by a solid black circle or point which, with more than a wink, refers to one of its main motifs (the punctum), "The Deaths of Roland Barthes" is a remarkable testimony to the writings of a contemporary, and a testament to a unique friendship.2 Written on the occasion of the passing away of a friend, originally published in the journal Poetique in 1981, and later collected in Psyche: Inventions de l'autre in 1987, Derrida's essay is a meditation on death and mourning, memory and ghosts, the referent and the other, the proper name and the unique, the look and the image, and their intertwining in the structure of photography. Mainly devoting itself to a reading of Barthes' last book, La chambre claire, itself a book of mourning, "The Deaths of Roland Barthes" elucidates how the force of metonymy allows us to speak of a singular death, how, despite having a suspended relation to the referent, photography permits us to maintain a relation to the absolute singularity of the other, and how, given the ubiquity and pervasiveness of photographs in our culture, their relation to spectrality remains to be examined.

The point of the commentary that follows, if it has one point, will be to attempt to graft a few remarks onto just one passage of Derrida's essay, a passage that ties together all of the motifs mentioned above, in order to elaborate the relation between photography and spectrality. By functioning as a testament or proof for the exigency of the absolute singularity of the other, or "the referent," photography demonstrates how death and the referent are brought together in the same structure (Psy 292/76). It is this "conjugation" of death and the referent in "the photographic event" that, I would like to show, gives photography its "spectral" structure (Psy 291/76).


A text written for Roland Barthes and in tribute to him, Derrida's essay addresses the dilemma of not just writing about, but also to and for a friend who has recently passed away. How to write, Derrida wonders, so that the writing would, somehow, keep alive within oneself the recently departed friend? Derrida admits to wishing to "write at the limit," in a writing beyond the neutral and colorless, that would respect the singularity and uniqueness of Barthes' writing but would also circumvent the pitfalls associated with conventional eulogies and tributes (Psy 282/60). These pitfalls would consist of either (i) an excess of fidelity, which in its devotion to the subject amounts to saying nothing and returning the other's words back to him, or (ii) an undue emphasis on the living friend speaking as the other, which would then risk the total effacement of the friend. Neither of these paths-or "infidelities," as Derrida calls them-is avoidable, and we are left with correcting the one with the other (Psy 283/62).

It is "for him," for Roland Barthes himself, that Derrida wants to write, yet he realizes that any attention paid to Roland Barthes, and thus to his name, would have to be fully aware of the separation of the name from its bearer (Psy 284/62). So, when Derrida evokes the name of Barthes after his passing away, he knows that it will not be the bearer of the name who will receive it, but only his name. Unable to call upon the friend who is no longer here, "it is certainly him whom I name," Derrida writes, but also "him beyond his name" (Psy 285/64). By invoking his name-which can never be said to have been his uniquely, since any proper name can only function if it is detachable from its bearer-"it is him in me that I name, toward him in me, in you, in us that I pass through his name" (Psy 285/64). …

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